In its 39-year history, the Ottawa-based National Arts Centre Orchestra has made appearances in Europe, the Middle East and Asia as Canada’s official auditory ambassadors.
And now, for the first time in its history, the players are meeting their audience in the Canadian North.
In recent months, orchestras have often made headlines as effective harbingers of cultural diplomacy.
In February, the New York Philharmonic extended the olive branch to North Korea by performing in the capital of Pyongyang, becoming the largest contingent of Americans to set foot in the country since US troops invaded during the Korean War.
The event mirrored other events of orchestral diplomacy, such as the Philadelphia orchestra’s tour of China in 1973 and the Boston Orchestra’s hugely successful visit to the Soviet Union in 1956.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra has been less associated with such “high-risk” international relationships, but it has nevertheless made its own cross-border overtures of musical friendship.
“In 2004, we did a tour to Mexico and the US, and it was very much trying to make a statement about North America as a community,” said Christopher Deacon, the orchestra’s managing director.
Even when playing in major American centres such as Philadelphia or Washington, the orchestra made a point of connecting with Mexican-American communities, said Deacon.
In 2000, the orchestra was specifically asked by former prime minister Jean Chretien to serve as “cultural diplomats” as they embarked on a tour of Europe and the Middle East.
The orchestra intended to play in Israel, before crossing the border for a concert in Jordan. The plan was to have the performances coupled with master classes at the National Conservatory of Palestine in the West Bank as well as a videoconference between Canadian, Israeli and Palestinian high school students.
However, the outbreak of the second intefadeh forced a cancellation of all but the performance in Israel.
“You can sometimes be on the cutting edge of those political situations when you’re doing this work, but, really, the role for an orchestra is not to be right at the frontline,” said Deacon.
“But when there are established relations and things are relatively stable, (the orchestra) can enhance or enrich relationships,” he added.
Classical music, in particular, is uniquely suited to the job, carrying no language barrier and, traditionally, consisting of internationally flavoured repertoires.
Orchestras the world over, essentially draw from the same catalogue.
“Whether you’re a Russian orchestra or a Spanish orchestra or an American orchestra, at some point in the concert there will be repertoire that is completely international,” said Deacon.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s current tour includes pieces from Mozart (Austria), Beethoven (Germany), and Tchaikovsky (Russia).
The universality of classical music affords orchestras the opportunity to compete with other classical music players on a level playing field.
“It allows listeners to judge, in a sense, how sophisticated and developed your culture is by the quality of your performance,” said Deacon.
In Europe, the National Arts Centre Orchestra has often been triumphant at beating the Old World at their own game.
After a 1995 concert in Vienna, Austria, the reviews stated that “Canada’s orchestra showed the Viennese how Beethoven should be played.”
“That quote, to me, captures the idea, that an audience in Vienna would say, ‘Indeed, Canada is a very sophisticated country because their national orchestra plays Beethoven as well as anybody,’” said Deacon.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra has also managed a few high-brow stabs at Canada’s former colonial master.
“What a wonderfully responsive orchestra these Canadians have created,” stated the Birmingham Post in England.
Nailing the classics is one thing, but the orchestra always makes a point of throwing a uniquely Canadian composition into the mix.
The current tour features Infinite Sky With Birds, by Canadian Alexina Louie, first premiered by the orchestra in 2006.
Carrying a motif typical of many works composed within Canada’s vast natural expanses, the piece stays true to its title with evocative themes, painting a aural picture for the listener.
“There’s a moment in it that I’ve always felt sounds like a flock of crows rising up from a cornfield, and they sort of swirl as they rise up, scattering and re-gathering,” said Deacon.
“When I talked to the composer about that image, she felt that was really close to what she was trying to describe,” he said.
Louie will be available for an intermission talk at the Whitehorse performance.
First formed in 1969, as the resident orchestra for the newly constructed National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the National Arts Centre Orchestra came to fruition at a high point of national jingoism in the wake of Canada’s centennial year and Montreal’s wildly successful Expo ‘67.
“The National Arts Centre Orchestra belongs to all Canadians” is an oft-repeated phrase by orchestra representatives, but with a repertoire of mainly Euro-centric music, the orchestra has needed, in recent years, to re-evaluate its role as a true musical representative of Canada’s people.
The National Arts Centre, in its next five-year plan, has identified the need to better showcase First Nation artists, both with its orchestra and with programming venues at the Ottawa-based centre.
In Winnipeg, the orchestra’s tour will intersect with Music Connections, a nine-week in-school program designed to integrate First Nation and European musical traditions.
Gathered from schools with largely First Nation communities, a grouping of 90 students, with assistance from a First Nation artist, has been building and customizing traditional flutes from plastic piping.
In mid-November, the students will partner with a brass octet from the orchestra for a matinee performance featuring the flutes.
Education and outreach is a primary focus of the orchestra. Throughout its 20-day Canadian tour, the orchestra prides itself on providing workshop series and intimate educational programs to local communities.
The morning following Whitehorse’s Tuesday night performance, the orchestra will perform a student matinee, as well as a series of afternoon musical clinics.
In its showcase performances, the orchestra plays one of five possible programs, each tailored to specific venues and esthetic considerations.
In addition to Infinite Sky With Birds, Whitehorse will hear Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, known as the Jupiter, the composer’s last symphony before his mysterious death in 1791.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 will feature renowned Vancouver-born pianist Jon Kimura Parker, the tour’s guest soloist.
“He’s a really fun personality,” said the orchestra’s media relations co-ordinator Jane Morris, who noted that in two pre-tour concerts in Ottawa with Parker, standing ovations were received on both nights.
On his website, Parker notes that Whitehorse is a far cry from his most northerly venue — the artist once played Baffin Island.
At the 1808 premiere of the piano concerto, it was Beethoven himself who took the stage as soloist in his last-ever solo orchestra appearance.
The orchestra will withhold the “larger” stylings of Tchaikovsky, reserving it for bigger venues in the south. The works of the Russian composer can often be overpowering to all but the most spacious concert halls — even if the church bells and cannons are foregone.
“I would be careful not to say that the Yukon Arts Centre isn’t Tchaikovsky-ready because, I can tell you, it’s going to be one of the better auditoriums we’re going to be playing in,” said Deacon.
As each successive year brings ever more diverse categories of musical genres and sub-genres into the modern musical psyche, the classics will soldier on nonetheless, he said.
The genre’s longevity alone ensures its high-quality. Over hundreds of years, the treacle has been forgotten, leaving only the “greatest hits.” The 17th century equivalent of the Macarena is nowhere to be found.
Deacon estimates that the contemporary catalogue of classical music only encompasses five per cent of all the music that was originally composed for the genre.